Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Parish offers prayer, support for cystic fibrosis patient from Ecuador

Story and photo by Jami LeBrun, Inland Register staff

(From the July 7, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)

Fifteen-year-old Isabel Franco (right) of Ecuador is in the United States with her mother, Isabel Berneo, seeking treatment for cystic fibrosis. (IR photo)

Life has never been easy for Isabel Franco. Since the day she was born, the 15-year-old from Ecuador has struggled to beat the often terminal genetic disease of cystic fibrosis. The odds have often seemed stacked against her, but she has pressed on, and in the process become a shining beacon of faith, hope and love to all those she meets.

Franco was born in the United States – prematurely – when her mother, Isabel Berneo, was visiting a sister in San Diego. At first Baby Isabel seemed perfectly normal. She and her mother went back to Ecuador shortly after the birth. Despite a healthy appetite, though, Franco failed to put on any weight, and at three months old, she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a condition that causes the body to produce abnormally thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and leads to life-threatening lung infections.

The condition made life a constant struggle for her family. Treatment and medicines are incredibly difficult – and often impossible – to access in Ecuador, and when they can be accessed, they are usually unaffordable. In that country, patients with cystic fibrosis rarely live to reach adolescence. To complicate matters even further, Franco’s father left the family when she was six years old, leaving them in dire financial straights.

After some deliberation, Berneo decided that coming to the United States was the only option for her daughter’s survival and began the complicated and challenging process to obtain a visitor’s visa. The process was made a little easier because Franco was born in the United States and therefore a United States citizen.

“It’s a very bad situation there” in Ecuador, said Berneo, who along with doctors from the U.S., helped to establish a cystic fibrosis foundation in her native country. There, she said, patients “don’t survive. There’s no money to buy medicine.”

In October 2002, Franco and her mother left Ecuador and their family to come to the U.S. to seek treatment. After a short stay in Miami, the two moved to Spokane. Berneo had a nephew in Spokane willing to help them, and the University of Washington is one of the best centers for lung transplants, an operation that Franco desperately needs in order to survive.

Franco spends her days attached to oxygen tubes that crisscross throughout the little apartment she shares with her mother. A large framed photograph of her older brother is prominently displayed on the coffee table, and both Franco and her mother are more than willing to share their affection and pride over the young man they have not been able to see in years.

Franco is frequently hospitalized with lung infections and other illnesses, and the combination of these two factors makes her unable to attend school. Her mother home-schools her, offering lessons in their apartment or the hospital. The two have to be very careful where they live because everything from young children and pets to dust and humidity can contribute to an infection.

Despite the challenges that face her, Franco is an incredibly generous person. She is a normal teenage girl – she likes to surf the Internet, listen to music and watch television. “I like to watch TV,” she explained in perfect English. “When I watch TV I am able to forget everything.” And, though the obstacles in her life often loom large, she is filled with faith and hope.

That is why she was so excited when the members of St. Joseph Parish in Spokane rallied around her to ensure that she received the sacraments of Eucharist and Confirmation. So excited, in fact, that she battled a high fever and numerous aches and pains throughout the week to make it to the parish, where she received the sacraments on May 14. Two days later, Franco was admitted into Deaconess Hospital, where she spent the next 27 days struggling to overcome a bout with pneumonia.

But the parish family at St. Joseph continued to support her. “They pray for me and they visit me – at home and at the hospital,” said Franco.

Alicia Bujanda, a catechist at St. Joseph Parish, spent one day each week on top of her regular weekly classes preparing Franco for the sacraments. As she visited Franco in the hospital and in her home, Bujanda found herself increasingly touched and inspired by the faith of the young girl.

“Isabel has been a lesson in life,” said Bujanda in Spanish. “She’s a reflection of God’s love. She’s a young lady who doesn’t have to learn her spirituality because she’s living it every day. Her everyday existence is a constant challenge, and yet she forges ahead. Visiting her in the hospital has been such a pleasure.”

Though Franco continues to try to live as normal a life as possible, she is very aware that her only hope to reach adulthood is a lung transplant. She is currently at the top of the donor list, but finding a match is very difficult, especially, explained her mother, because Hispanic people are less likely than many others to donate their organs when they die.

Mother and daughter had a heart-wrenching experience in March when Franco’s transplant beeper went off. They rushed to Seattle and prepared for the surgery, only to find that the donated lung had been so damaged that it was completely useless. So, they returned to Spokane, where they continue to wait – and hope.

Though life’s obstacles sometimes seem insurmountable, Berneo and Franco only have to look around at their small apartment, their parish community and the doctors and nurses at Deaconess to be reminded of God’s rich blessings.

“Our church, the community, the hospital – these kinds of experiences just make one feel very grateful,” said Berneo.

Though they miss their family and friends in Ecuador, Berneo and Franco have decided to make Spokane their home. Even if Franco receives a lung transplant, she will probably always have health problems and always need to be watched and regulated. Adults with cystic fibrosis often experience diabetes and osteoporosis, as well as reproductive problems.

Just as the Spokane community has been an asset to Franco – both medically and spiritually – Franco has been an incredible asset to Spokane. Her generous spirit, her faith, and her joyous outlook on life have endeared her to the doctors, nurses, parishioners and everyone else she has met.

“Isabel makes you aware of the great gift of patience,” said Bujanda, “but above all, the great gifts of faith and humility.”

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